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Marc Vidal: “It’s vital that people are trained to work with machines”

Marta Villalba

Marta Villalba

Marc Vidal (Barcelona, 1977), consultant and speaker with an extensive CV specializing in economics and digital strategy, doesn’t believe the pandemic has changed the corporate road map in terms of digital transformation. The coronavirus has simply been “a trigger that accelerated it.” If the transformation was already an important step to increase competitiveness—as he claims in his last book, La era de la Humanidad (The Age of Humanity)—it is now even more so: “What was going to take five years has happened in just five months. Now, what we do in the next five months will impact how we manage our companies and everything in general for the next five years.”

He thinks that the road to digitization will mean normalizing the new social and regulatory behaviors brought about by COVID-19. Meanwhile, companies will do what is required. This remains the same but is even more important given the crisis that Vidal says, “is inevitable and will peak toward the middle of 2021 or the start of 2022.” Only four European countries currently outperform the United States in digitization (Denmark, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Finland), according to a European Investment Bank report.

marc vidal

Vidal maintains that process efficiency will be key among the measures that companies need to take to digitize because “the way to earn more when you sell less is to be more efficient.” He says that those who do a good job of modifying their processes to increase automation will be best placed to be more profitable and competitive.

Old ways are insufficient: Enter disruptive business models

Generating new business models is also a must for companies, although in a different way. It’s no longer just about selling the same things to new people or selling new things to regular customers. Vidal says another (disruptive) variant has come into play: selling new things to new people. He uses the example of the electronic music festival Tomorrowland, which is held in Belgium and sells out every year. The 2020 event is entirely virtual, allowing the festival to hire many more DJs and run for a longer period. This format has allowed them to reach more people and sell tickets much more cheaply, attracting a target audience they had never previously reached. The added advantage is that they can keep selling tickets, to the point where this year’s festival has been more profitable than in previous years. “If people are able to attend in person next year, they’ll prefer to do that of course, but I’m sure that the Tomorrowland of the future will be a hybrid festival, where people pay a lot to go in person and not so much to see it live online. That’s a new disruptive business model.”

Companies that want to make the leap to digitization will also inevitably have to train their employees in new skills, and combine these with technology. The idea is to be able to work with machines to do better things. In the future, practically every company will employ technology, to the point where they all have the same machines and the difference will be in the people who work with them. Therefore, according to Vidal, “it’s vital that people are trained to work with machines. It won’t be a robot that takes their job but someone who knows how to work with that robot.”

Prevailing protective technologies and the contactless economy

As he explains in his course on business trends in the new normal, new technologies that were previously not high-priority will prevail in the near future. These include virtual and augmented reality, “which are going to demand perfection and new capabilities because people want to meet virtually but in a way that is as real as possible.” Vidal says that Big Data—the “key technology for understanding clients and putting them at the center of the value chain”—will evolve to unknown levels because we are currently not very good at converting it into information and knowledge. And he sees a marked acceleration of service-focused robotics, such as in the restaurant industry, due to basic safety standards and the limited contact they will require. “We’re moving toward a contactless or low-touch economy. In general, technologies that help protect people will grow significantly, particularly because they’ll be needed for a long time, as it may be years before a vaccine is released.”

Authentic digitization for creating secure environments

According to Marc Vidal, public companies in Spain, many Latin American countries and quite a few countries in Europe are lagging a long way behind private companies when it comes to digital transformation. Even large institutional companies that often talk about innovation, digitalization and technology are not in the best place to face the pandemic. “The overwhelming majority of companies talk about teleworking when they are really just talking about working from home; they are two very different things. Telework requires complete, secure access to your company’s systems. It has to be almost as though you were on site, with no limitations and absolute security.” Vidal is especially concerned about telework at public companies, due to potential personal data security problems when someone accesses a public system from home on their computer. “I really think there’ll be a number of news items in the coming months about data theft or security holes.”

Machines that are smarter than humans in 15 years’ time

Although we’ve been immersed in digitization—the fourth industrial revolution—since the 90s, this expert is already seeing a new scenario with the arrival of the fifth industrial revolution around 2030–2035. This revolution will be related to the evolution of technology and a concept known as the technological singularity. Vidal describes this concept as, “That moment when intelligent software or a robot no longer needs humans to create and organize itself, when an algorithm is able to create other algorithms, when a digital brain is as intelligent as a human one. There are currently no computers anywhere in the world capable of making 10 thousand million billion computations a second, which is how fast our brains work. Once there are, we will be in a scenario where, for the first time, humans will no longer be in front of stronger or faster machines, but ones that are more intelligent than us.” Vidal makes it clear that this does not mean that such computers would think and feel like humans, which is currently unthinkable. He says that people will always be needed to provide creativity, critical thinking and emotion.